Why Do We Call It the Silver Screen? A Look at 3 Old Hollywood Terms

silver screen, old theater

Since its introduction in the early 20th century, the film industry’s contributions to the English language have been manifold. Some terms, along with the concepts they described, were fleeting. Take Smell-O-Vision, the olfactory movie-going experience in which plot-related scents were pumped into the theater during screenings; it made its debut and last appearance in the same 1960s film. However other terms born in cinema have stuck around to this day, and some have even broadened their applications beyond the lexicon of film.

Silver Screen

When English speakers first started attending “the pictures” in the nineteen-teens, movie screens were coated with reflective metallic paint, resulting in a silver surface to better display the projected images. By the 1920s, the term silver screen moved beyond the literal realm and into metaphorical territory to apply to cinema in general. This type of sense broadening in which something associated with an object or concept takes on the name of that thing is called metonymy. With this extension, speakers of English know the phrase star of the silver screen to mean “an actor in films.”

Technicolor

This term was coined by the company of the same name, and the trademarked term described the company’s process of dying film to create a color print from black-and-white originals, replacing the time-consuming hand-coloring method. Patented in 1916, filmmakers widely implemented the Technicolor process, characterized by highly saturated colors, up through the early 1950s. Famous films that used Technicolor include The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Starting in the late 1930s, the term bled into general usage with a new sense: vibrant, flamboyant, or lurid in color, meaning, or detail. The phrase technicolor yawn, a colorful slang expression describing the act of vomiting dating back to the 1960s, embodies a more grotesque extension of this term.

Blockbuster

When the term blockbuster entered English in the 1940s, it referred to aerial bombs containing high explosives used in large-scale demolitions as this sort of bomb could take out an entire block of buildings. Within a few short years, speakers of English were readily applying the term blockbuster to nonexplosive items such as motion pictures and novels that achieved extraordinary success. In the film world, blockbusters generally boast high budgets and large-scale productions paired with grandiose narratives. The now-defunct video-rental chain Blockbuster first opened in the 1980s and helped further cement the figurative sense of blockbuster to high-grossing films in the minds of English speakers worldwide.

Do you have a favorite cinematic word or expression? We also explored mumblecore and exploitation films on our blog.